When they catch up this weekend in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe will celebrate the deep civilisational links between the two nations before they unveil the contours of a more purposeful strategic partnership in Tokyo on Monday.
That Modi and Abe have developed a personal rapport over the years is well known. Although he could not make Japan his first foreign destination as PM, Modi has kept the essence of his promise that he would attach special significance to ties with Tokyo. His trip to Japan is his first bilateral diplomatic engagement outside the subcontinent.
If Tokyo was disappointed with Modi’s cancellation of his trip to Japan at the last moment a few weeks ago, Abe is making a special gesture now by showing up at Kyoto to host a private dinner for the Indian prime minister. As they push for an ambitious agenda of bilateral cooperation, Modi and Abe are both privileging the past to address the challenges of the present.
For Modi and Abe, widely hailed and rebuked for their unabashed nationalism, the past is not really past. They are actively mobilising the past in pursuit of their current goals. If Modi is leveraging nationalism to reconfigure India’s domestic politics and its external orientation, Abe is determined to end Japan’s post-war antipathy towards nationalism and remake it as a normal state.
As they seek a larger role for their nations in Asia and the world, Modi and Abe know they need each other more than ever before. They are acutely conscious that India and Japan form unique partners for each other amid the current economic and geopolitical flux in Asia.
They have one common problem, though. Both are burdened with national security bureaucracies that are stuck with mantras of the past and slowing down the prospects for civil nuclear and defence cooperation. Modi and Abe need to press their bureaucracies to quickly wrap up the nuclear negotiations and lay the foundations for a strong defence partnership.
On the economic front, the challenges are more on the Indian side, where Modi must get his domestic act together to take full advantage of the possibilities that have opened up for Japan’s participation in accelerating India’s economic development. On a whole range of issues identified as priorities by Modi — from boosting India’s manufacturing sector to the modernisation of infrastructure, from building high-speed railways to constructing smart cities, from cleaning the Ganga to the development of green technologies — Japan is well placed to become a productive partner.
Modi’s decision to arrive in Kyoto a day ahead of schedule and Abe’s move to meet him there are part of an effort to showcase the historic Buddhist bonds between continued…